The images in this article were taken pre-COVID-19.
If you’re reading this, chances are you’re already convinced that a gap year is for you.
But what are you actually supposed to do with 365 days of absolute freedom? Take a look at what it means to take a gap year, and our top gap year ideas to inspire you.
What to do during a gap year
Most people take a gap year because they’re not sure what comes next for them. For many people, the first time they’re given the space to look at what they really want out of life and their career is during a gap year.
While our school years leave us with specific knowledge and skills, like how to read and solve for x, most of us have to find our own way to learn about ourselves and the world.
It might be easier to follow in the footsteps of your friends, family, or even celebrity role models. But breaking away from the group-mentality of high school can be exhilarating, and absolutely terrifying. A gap year is a chance to determine your personal and professional growth according to your own wishes and standards.
So, what are those secret passions you’ve been putting off to make the honour roll or impress scouts in the audience? Maybe you’re a straight-A maths whiz who can’t shake the idea of learning to salsa in Costa Rica? Maybe you want to use all the free time you can get to find out how big you could grow your brand using YouTube, Instagram, or another platform?
Or, you could be a budding entrepreneur who has always wanted to see how business works in low- and middle-income nations?
Whatever your passion, a gap year gives you the time to explore an interest that doesn’t necessarily need to match your current social identity or the career path you have in mind.
Further reading: How to take a gap year: before, during, and after
Remember that you don’t need to choose one option only. Most people actually do many things during their time off.
And don’t be discouraged if you can’t take a full year to explore all possibilities. You can use the months between high school and college as a kind of “gap summer” if there are financial constraints, or if you’re an athlete who needs to get back home in time to start your training schedule.
Further reading: Why I regret not taking a gap year
With GVI, you can travel to five continents around the world, including Africa, Asia, South America, Australasia and Europe. You can visit 16 countries – South Africa, Madagascar, Ghana, Seychelles, India, Laos, Thailand, Nepal, Cambodia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Belize, Fiji, Spain, Greece, and, of course, Peru.
If you’re still undecided, why not book a chat with one of our enrolment managers and ask them about their favourite GVI location?
If you’re having trouble convincing your parents that travelling is a great idea, remind them that it helps you develop skills like confidence, resilience, financial planning and cross-cultural communication. These skills will impress both colleges and future employers.
And, your parents can rest assured when you travel abroad to volunteer with GVI. As a parent-run organisation, GVI prioritises the safety of all our participants and staff. Read our parent pack for more info.
Below you’ll find a list of the most popular things students choose to do during their gap years, along with the most exciting destinations to do them in.
1) Travel: Join a gap year program abroad in Peru
Getting first-hand experience of scenes you’ve only ever seen online, making new friends, and trying foods you might not have heard of before — it’s a wonder that anyone even comes back home after their gap year travelling abroad.
Further reading: Nine inspirational travel and volunteering quotes
The real question is: where do you go? Why not follow Malia Obama’s footsteps and choose Peru?
After reading up on things to do in Peru, you’ll notice that there’s an almost endless list of exciting places to visit and things to see.
Peru has something for everyone: adventure sports for the adrenaline junkie, historical sites for the intellectual, unique habitats for the nature lover, bold flavours for the foodie, and extraordinary scenery for those looking to learn about a new culture.
Don’t be surprised if you end up spending your entire gap year backpacking through the land of the Inca people.
Further reading: Six ways to deepen your travel experiences
2) Make an impact: Join a gap year volunteer program in Ghana
Working in communities can teach you respect for local customs that resort-hopping tourists, backpackers and even many local people will never experience.
One of our most exciting service programs abroad is in Ghana where our volunteers work with local women’s empowerment initiatives. What volunteers are directly involved in depends on the needs of our in-country partners at the time.
Some of the things they’ve done in the past include conducting workshops that create discussion around gender stereotypes and domestic violence, helping women increase their knowledge of children’s development and preventative health, and teaching women valuable professional skills like how to work with technology and budgets.
Further reading: 16 interesting facts about Ghana
While exploring new ways of life and discovering what is meaningful to you, you’ll be learning how to communicate with people who don’t share your language or customs.
You’ll collaborate with other volunteers in your team and acquire important abilities that both admissions officers and hiring managers are looking for, allowing you to maximise the value of your gap year for future employment.
You’ll get to meet young people from all around the world who are also outside of their comfort zones and social cliques.
Further reading: Why volunteer?
If you’re looking for a great volunteer vacation destination outside Africa, why not choose one of our other community development projects in India, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Peru, Mexico, Costa Rica and Fiji.
3) Teach: Join a gap year teaching program in Cambodia
Teaching abroad isn’t only for those who are aspiring educators. It’s a way to get used to a work environment and develop professional skills before going into your chosen field.
Further reading: Is teaching English abroad right for me?
Teaching is a particularly good choice for young adults looking to develop their leadership skills.
What better way to learn how to be a kind and assertive leader than by keeping a group of young students engaged when they can’t wait for the break-time bell to ring?
You’ll also learn to communicate effectively with people who speak a different language. This is a skill employers earmark as a top priority when looking to hire a manager.
You’ll master a bunch of other skills while teaching abroad, like confidence, punctuality, prioritisation, conflict resolution, resilience, on-the-spot problem-solving, self-sufficiency, and the ability to turn negative feedback into positive outcomes.
Further reading: Which gap year program is best for my career?
If you think teaching overseas during your gap year might be for you, why not join our teaching program in Cambodia? You’ll be stationed in Siem Reap, a town known for being the gateway to the ruins of Angkor Wat.
You’ll work with novice Buddhist monks and children from the local community and add to their English literacy skills.
This program is a great way to explore Cambodia’s many unique sights, like the Royal Palace or the National Museum of Cambodia. In your free time, you can travel north to explore the grand Angkor Wat temple complex.
Further reading: Nine of the best things to do In Cambodia
4) Gain work experience: Complete a gap year internship in South Africa
Take another leaf out of Malia Obama’s book and complete an internship in a vocational field you’d like to explore. There are many benefits to this choice.
You’ll find out if this is really the type of work for you before you commit fully to it and you’ll gain some work experience that’ll serve you well wherever you might end up. And, you can even have some fun while working.
Taking your internship abroad allows you to balance your need to keep your career on track while still having the opportunity to see and experience lots of new things at the same time.
We offer a women’s empowerment program in Cape Town, South Africa. You can join the program along with a group of volunteers from all around the world.
You’ll support women to access equal opportunities such as education, jobs and public health. These empowerment initiatives are achieved through skills development workshops to improve employability, and through teaching women about preventive health and prenatal care.
Further reading: Gain career confidence with a gap year internship
5) Prepare for medical school: Join a public health program in South Africa
Have you always thought you’d make a great doctor, nurse, paramedic or therapist? Do you have a genuine desire to help people feel better?
Then you probably already know that getting certified as any kind of healthcare professional can be a challenge. It’s a good idea to be sure you enjoy the work before you decide that this will be the path to pursue.
Our public health internships are beneficial for students interested in health administration, occupational therapy and nutrition. Those interested in other fields like dentistry and emergency response can also benefit.
No prior medical experience is necessary before signing up to our health programs, since public health volunteers do not perform any medical procedures or diagnostic work, as per our policy on medical volunteering.
To ensure the safety of all participants involved in the program, volunteer participants will be required to complete a DPS check, Police Clearance, or a National Background Check where necessary, and to comply with the policy at all times.
This means our programs are ideal for students looking to take a meaningful break before medical school or even right after graduating high school.
Further reading: How to choose the right internship to boost your career
On our public health internship in South Africa, you’ll work with women and children. You’ll support healthy lifestyles through women’s empowerment classes that assist women and girls to engage in women’s health topics and general well-being.
You’ll also guide children in sports during physical education lessons, and help them understand the health benefits of physical exercise.
If sports isn’t your passion, why not learn more about preventative health by helping our teams in Fiji organise preventative health, hygiene, nutrition and first aid workshops in underserved communities?
6) Join a gap year study abroad program in Thailand
Okay, we know what you’re thinking, “Study during my gap year? That’s exactly what I’m trying to get away from!”
But these aren’t your average classroom courses.
One of our best project destinations to study abroad in is Huay Pakoot village in northern Thailand. Here students get to learn about the unique relationship local Karen people share with the elephants native to this forested region.
Volunteers work with traditional elephant keepers, to ensure that their elephants are well cared for.
Further reading: Three reasons to volunteer with elephants in Thailand
If you’re interested in the link between community development and conservation efforts, you can always choose our community development program in Costa Rica. Students on this program will be based in Cimarrones, a town in the heart of the rainforest.
Further reading: Four reasons why the environment needs elephants
Students with an interest in gender studies can join our gender equality and education program in Cape Town, South Africa. You’ll be based in Gordon’s Bay, a small seaside town about an hour’s drive from Cape Town, and work with girls and women in the local township to learn how education initiatives can help them gain more financial and social freedom.
7) Explore artistic pursuits: Join a gap year program in Costa Rica
Perhaps you’d like to develop your creative side?
You can use your gap year to do this. Explore your artistic side, and even if you don’t consider this a career option, it’ll provide short-term satisfaction as well as long-term productivity benefits.
Further reading: Six unusual animals to look out for in Costa Rica
For those of you who focused on perfecting your art throughout your school years, you have probably dreamed of being successful. Maybe you’ve dreamed about landing a prestigious grant or fellowship?
Maybe you’ve pictured being hired by a big company? Often, young creatives focus so much on this goal, but be careful of losing sight of your one-of-a-kind personality.
A great way to reclaim this part of yourself is by taking a break, reflecting and doing something a little different. You’ll return with a new perspective and this fresh new spirit will show in your work.
Volunteer with children in Costa Rica and explore your creative side. Assist with sports lessons to increase gross motor skills, and work on art, crafts and music to develop fine motor skills. Lead group activities like games to help develop social skills.
Assist children in expressing themselves creatively in these activities and learn how artistic expression can inspire development.
8) Go on an adventure: Join a gap year diving program in Fiji
All gap years are adventures in one way or another. But if none of the options we’ve listed so far cut it for you, keep reading.
Further reading: The eight best things to do in Fiji
We run several professional diving programs around the world, including ones in Fiji, Seychelles, and Mexico. With over 300 tropical islands to explore, water the colour of clear topaz and magnificent cave structures, Fiji lives up to nearly everyone’s idea of bliss.
As a marine conservation volunteer in Fiji, you’ll learn how to dive, and you’ll have the opportunity to earn a PADI certificate in the process. You’ll also assist in collecting data to help in the protection of Indian Ocean fish and coral populations.
Further reading: Diving in the Seychelles – What is it actually like?
You’ll spend the weekdays hiking through lush rainforests, wide stretches of untouched beaches, African savannahs as far as the eye can see, or rugged island mountain trails. These activities will depend on your chosen destination.
You could carry out wildlife surveys, beach cleans, camera-trap setups and reforestation projects.
On the weekends you can choose from a variety of sports like white-water rafting if you’re in Costa Rica, hot-air balloon safaris if you’ve chosen to travel to South Africa, water skiing along Thailand’s coast, or climbing rock faces in Seychelles.
In addition, if you’d rather work on one of our community development initiatives, there’s also an option to enjoy the outdoors on the weekend. You can trek up to Everest base camp in Nepal or the Inca Trail in Peru, go surfing in Ghana, dirt bike in Cambodia, or kayak in Laos.
9) Work with animals: Join a turtle conservation gap year program in Greece
Learning about animals in a lecture hall just isn’t the same as being around them every day. If you’re passionate about caring for animals then you might want to do a conservation program.
Taking time during your gap year to work with animals is not only food for the soul, but if you’re interested in pursuing veterinary science as a career, it’ll also help you work on your “bedside manner”.
Further reading: Ten of the best organisations to follow that help endangered animals
If you’d like to tour Europe on your gap year, why not join our turtle conservation project in Greece? You’ll get to sleep and wake up on a Mediterranean beach with other volunteers during the warm summer months, conducting sunset and night-time surveys to find, measure and tag mother sea turtles.
In the mornings, you’ll walk the beach again to record the number of nests that appeared overnight and put barriers in place to protect the eggs from predators. The highlight of this project is, of course, seeing little turtle hatchlings making it to the sea.
Further reading: Six animal species and how they are affected by climate change
While in Greece, you’ll also get the chance to explore some of the ancient sites nearby like the legendary temple of Apollo. Once your time on project ends, why not extend your trip and take some time to backpack through neighbouring countries like Turkey, Italy, France or Spain?
It’s important to remember that turtle nesting behaviour is seasonal, which means these programs are only available at specific times of the year.